Napoli’s Spanish coach Rafael ‘Rafa’ Benitez.
Rafa Benitez has made some valid points about the mentality in Italian football.
His comments were a bit exaggerated too but he made his point clear enough. Although calcio isn’t as defensive as it was two decades ago, Italian teams still have the tendency to be conservative, pragmatic and even lazy.
More than any other football nation, Italy is too result driven. That has been the case in the post-World War II era, especially with the emergence of catenaccio, the perishing of Il Grande Torino and the Azzurri‘s failures at international level in the 1950s.
Benitez spoke to the Italian press before the Partenopei’s Europa League clash with FC Porto. Like him or loathe him, the point is not that he made those comments on the mentality of calcio. The point is that someone made those comments in the first place.
He told http://www.tuttonapoli.net: “European football is attacking football and that is what the television audiences and the fans like.
“Italian football however concerns itself a lot with not conceding goals.
“A change in mentality is necessary. How a team defends can be decisive, but not always.
“In Italy everyone talks about playing with three at the back, but really there are 11 men behind the ball!”
Perhaps the last quote is hyperbole but Benitez is accurate in the other quotes.
Italian teams are so obsessed with results and the fear of failure is too great. It seems that it is very hard to change a mentality that has been present in Italian football for over 60 years but Italy and the world has changed since then.
Catenaccio was invented in the 1940s by Nereo Rocco when he was coaching Triestina. It was also just after World War II, in which the Italian army suffered humiliating defeats, particularly in North Africa and in Greece. Perhaps the weakness and ineptness of the Italian army made Italian football coaches think that they must be the opposite of Italian generals. If Italian army generals lost because they were tactically inept, Italy’s football coaches could not afford to do the same. Organisation is a massive priority for Italian coaches.
Many things have changed since the war has ended and Rocco introduced catenaccio to calcio. It isn’t likely that we will see a World War III anytime soon and Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan is credited by most pundits and fans as the team to have revolutionised Italian football and destroyed catenaccio. Judging by how Italian teams play now, it doesn’t look like the revolution was a complete success.
Benitez was spot on when he said that Europeans like to play attacking football. Only Greece can be considered to be more pragmatic than the Italians and Fernando Santos’ team is probably the most defensive in world football. These days, even Germany plays attacking football and implement a pressing game. A nation that is known for doing things efficiently, the German teams at club and international level are know playing with more flair and creativity.
The rest of Europe can differentiate the difference between football and war. Former Dutch coach Rinus Michels once said that football is war but if Italian coaches had heard that quote, they would have taken it too literally. In battle, soldiers must stick to a plan. They can’t show off like James Bond in a 007 movie. Football is different. Playing can show tricks and amazing pieces of skill as long as they are constructive. Party tricks and mazy dribbles count for nothing if they don’t result in goals.
Calcio has been too obsessed with systems, the defensive aspects of the game and the fear of losing. As a result, Italian teams struggle to maintain possession despite the presence of technically gifted players. Just because a team attacks, it doesn’t mean you can throw your defensive structure out of the window. A team can still attack and make sure that the right defensive structures are in place. Italian teams need to embrace this concept.
If you look at teams like Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, they are known for their style of play and they don’t over-elaborate on the defensive aspects like an Italian coach would. Barcelona emphasises on keeping possession but when the Blaugrana lose the ball, they press as quickly as possible. Dortmund plays a counter-attacking game but when it doesn’t have the ball, they press and confine the space.
The idea of Italian teams throwing 11 men behind the ball these days is an exaggeration but for all the formations used, the application is the main problem. There are teams that either fatigue easily or they are too preoccupied with conceding goals. Not enough attention is paid to creating chances and finishing them and not many teams take risks or have a daring approach.
This is why it is good to have a coach like Zdenek Zeman in Italian football. He develops young players and he has a cavalier approach. Il Boemo does ignore defensive structures and the closest he has been to winning major silverware was in the 1994/95 Serie A season when Lazio came equal second but he is a maverick.
Calcio needs coaches like him and in Eusebio Di Francesco, there is a coach who has embraced Zeman’s philosophy. The Sassuolo coach played under Zeman at Roma and having been re-instated as Neroverdi coach, Di Francesco could lead them to Serie A survival while granting opportunities to youngsters like Nicola Sansone, Simone Zaza and Domenico Berardi.
If there is one man who would also agree with Rafa, it would be Sampdoria coach Sinisa Mihajlovic. After losing 3-0 to Atalanta in the last round of Serie A, Mihajlovic said that his team only played for 15-20 minutes and his players should be men first and players second. Samp’s coach also addressed another issue with Italian football. Even when teams attack, most of them just do it in patches.
This is another reason why Italian football needs a mentality change. If an Italian team attacks, they don’t attack for 90 minutes, and even if they get a big lead, they sit on it just to show mercy on their opponents. Italian teams must attack for 90 minutes and thrash teams when they have the chance. Forget about saving energy. Why save energy if there is nothing to save in the first place?
Italian teams should never show sympathy. If Manchester United 7-1 Roma from the 2006-07 UEFA Champions League season and the Euro 2012 Final are anything to go by, neutrals will want to see Italian teams humiliated, just so the coaches get punished for complacency or pragmatism.
Not only that, the foreign media love to portray Italian football as cowardly, especially the English press. This is why Mihajlovic’s comments are important. Italian footballers need to show that they aren’t cowards, regardless if they are playing for club or country. Non-Italian teams and fans want to win but they want style and goals. Why would someone want to go to the stadium on a cold night just to watch two teams watch the clock keep ticking?
Even if you want to talk about trophy cabinets, should Italy be happy with just four World Cups and its clubs content with 12 European Cup/ UEFA Champions League trophies? If Italian teams played for 90 minutes, attacked their opponents and were more ambitious, there could be more trophies coming in.
The sad thing about all this is that Italian teams can play attacking football. In the first two years of Cesare Prandelli’s stint, the Azzurri played some of their best football in years. The Azzurrini reached the final of the European U/21 Championship and lost 4-2 to Spain but there were some fine attacking players present. In the Serie A, there are teams like Roma, Juventus, Fiorentina, Napoli (at times), Hellas Verona and Sassuolo that want to play entertaining football.
Italy doesn’t have stars like Roberto Baggio, Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola, Giuseppe Meazza and the like these days but players like Giuseppe Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Lorenzo Insigne, Antonio Cassano and Marco Verratti are a few players who play with spark and class. Despite having the reputation for being the “masters of defence”, Italy has still produced excellent attacking players and more are coming through.
If calcio has embraced the “football is war” philosophy, that should change too. Italian coaches should familiarise themselves with the saying, “Offence is the best form of defence.” If Italians are the “masters of defence” and “offence is the best form of defence”, shouldn’t Italians be the “masters of offence” too?
With the attacking talent Italy produces, neutrals shouldn’t be so obsessed with Spain and tiki-taka, Brazil and jogo bonito or the Netherlands and Totaalvoetbal. The nation known for catenaccio and teaching the world to defend must show that it is capable of playing bel gioco.
Benitez is a coach that is highly rated in the football world but disliked by others. Regardless of what you think of him, he made some points about how Italian teams approach matches.